Seattle Underground

Dave and I went on the Bill Speidel’s Underground Seattle walking tour the other day which is based in Pioneer Square. Wikipedia describes the history much better than I can type it all out so stealing from their resourceful website; here are the facts for you. Seattle’s first buildings were wooden. In 1889, a cabinetmaker accidentally overturned and ignited a glue pot. An attempt to extinguish it with water spread the burning grease-based glue. The fire chief was out of town, and although the volunteer fire department responded, they made the mistake of trying to use too many hoses at once. They never recovered from the subsequent drop in water pressure, and the Great Seattle Fire ended up destroying 33 city blocks. Instead of rebuilding the city as it was before, Seattle made two strategic decisions. First, they ordered that all rebuilding use stone or brick—insurance against a similar disaster in the future. They also decided to take advantage of the destruction to regrade the streets one to two stories higher than the original street grade.


To regrade, the streets were lined with concrete walls which formed narrow alleyways between the walls and the buildings on either side of the street, and a wide “alley” where the street was. The naturally steep hillsides were used, and through a series of sluices, material was washed into the wide “alleys”, effectively raising the streets to the desired new level, generally twelve feet higher than before, though some places were nearly thirty feet. At first, pedestrians climbed ladders to go between street level and the sidewalks in front of the the building entrances. Brick archways were constructed next to the road surface, above the submerged sidewalks. Skylights with small panes of clear glass, (which later turned to amethyst-colored because of phosphorus in the glass), were installed, creating the area now called the Seattle Underground.
When they reconstructed their buildings, merchants and landlords knew that it would just be a matter of time before what was originally the ground floor would be underground, and what was originally the next floor up would be the new ground floor.
Once the new sidewalks were complete, building owners moved their businesses to the new ground floor, although merchants carried on business in the lowest floors of buildings that survived the fire, and pedestrians continued to use the underground sidewwalks lit by the glass cubes (still seen on some streets) embedded in the grade-level sidewalk above.
In 1907 the city condemned the Underground for fear of bubonic plague. The basements were left to deteriorate or were used as storage. In some cases, they became illegal flophouses for the homeless, gambling halls, speakeasies, and opium dens.
Pavement level skylights mean that whilst underground you can see and hear the people walking on the pavement above you.


The Underground was featured as the setting of the 1973 TV movie The Night Strangler, and an episode of Scooby Doo also featured it.

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